[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The Yellow Wave
The lull before the hurricane.
Isis Downs station.
A hot September sun had dropped red as a blood-dyed targe behind the clouds piled up against the western horizon as Dick Hatten came in sight of the head-station. From the coolibahs which fringed the watercourse just left behind, the dust-shrouded, thirsty leaves hung motionless, while from one solitary chimney on the ridge ahead the smoke rose straight into the voiceless air. For the last quarter of a mile Dick’s mount had evinced a fresh interest in things in general, and now, as the house came into view, he pricked his ears and began to pick up the hoofs that for the last few hours had dragged wearily over the hard, Mitchell-grassed Downs. Similarly galvanized by the near prospect of a spell, the old groggy-legged ‘cutting-out’ horse who carried the swag now closed up his distance, jogging cheerily almost abreast of his mate.
Sitting loosely in his saddle, with bent back and with feet rammed home in the stirrups, Dick pulled stolidly at his pipe.
True to his threat, Spero had taken over the mortgage, and with it in his possession had made short work of the mortgagor; and now Hatten found himself minus even the nominal ownership of his station, and practically with no assets save Io and the two horses now carrying him and his belongings to Isis Downs. As things had chanced, his future troubled him little.
Heather was lost to him, and this being so, what fate might have in store had little real interest for the man whose one ambition to succeed had been prompted by the prospect of asking her to share his altered fortunes.
For his personal wants he had no fear; a good all-round man need never starve in Australia, and without any undue egotism Dick knew he was that. Since he had last parted from Heather on the deck of the Barcoo, Hatten had often thought of the strange, apparently impracticable promise to which he had committed himself.
In the presence of a beautiful woman the man who loves her is apt to promise much; nay, if he has in him aught of chivalry, she has but to ask to receive all that he can proffer — save honour.
From Dick, Heather had required the performance of a task not only hard in itself to accomplish, but whose realization could only be brought about by an act of supreme self-sacrifice. Many a man under the circumstances would have left these wandering planets to conjoin, or forever revolve in different orbits as chance directed. Not so Dick; he meant to keep his compact to his friend, even although his reason told him it was unattainable, for his heart dominated his mind. This illogical but potent organ urged him on his platonic quest, only that in its own time it might break in pieces the cordon which, in the unsatisfying guise of friendship, held him apart from the woman he loved. Like most men, however, Dick had little knowledge of his own heart, and so he rode up to the horse-paddock gate resolved to treat with Heather from a purely platonic base. Pulling up, the latest victim of finance companies looked with friendly interest at one of the last strongholds of the purely squatting class. Rising from the crown of a low, rocky ridge, Isis Downs head-station presented all the appearances of a small Bush township.
In common with most of the early squatters, Cameron had begun life on the Flinders nearly thirty years ago in little better than a hut. This had been added to as necessity arose, then deserted for a more pretentious building, which in its turn took unto itself wings and wide heat-defying verandas. The old house still stood, having been converted into a bachelors’ barracks and smoking-room by its builder, in recognition of a sentiment which refused to allow of the destruction of a habitat hallowed by the memories of the past. At the back of the main building were clustered that miscellaneous collection of stables, stores, and men’s huts, which as a natural consequence sprang into existence round the head-station.
Isis Downs looked strangely homelike from where Dick sat, surrounded by the dust-cloud which had followed the pack-horse, and now hung in a lazy column all down the winding track. The gray pisé walls and white-painted roofs of the long rambling building relieved his eyes, scorched with the glare of the Downs. As he looked, he caught the faint glitter of waterdrops on the rough reed-mats hanging from the façade. Behind those broad verandas lay infinite possibilities of shade. To the green foliage of the garden the sunflowers lent here and there a golden radiance, while over the pisé walls masses of scarlet and purple bougainvillea ran like a flame. Wrapped in thought, Hatten sat looking at the scene before him till a flutter of wings, accompanied by the discordant grumbling of turkeys driven above their pace, roused him out of his abstraction.
Glancing to the left, he saw a flock of these persistent wanderers hurrying homeward. Some distance in their rear waddled an apparition, monk-like in its proportions. The one vestment of calico, bound midway by a belt, which served to mark the location of a long-since-fleshed-up waist, suggested that the wearer belonged to the gentler sex, though this supposition was hardly borne out by the heavy blucher boots and dissipated felt hat which completed the turkey-driver’s attire.
As the birds flew over the fence, their captor looked with a certain lazy curiosity at the horseman.
‘Hullo, Maggie!’ shouted Dick; ‘how are the hens getting on?’
‘Faix, you’d better ax the turkey-cock!’ retorted old Margaret, with chilling indifference. Then, recognising the laugh that followed, she rolled towards the gate, exclaiming as she neared Hatten: ‘Augh, glory be to Gad if it ishn’t Misther Dick, wid a beard on him loike a goat!’
‘Draw it mild, Maggie,’ laughed Dick, as he shook hands with the old hen-wife; ‘three months’ stubble, that’s all. How are they all up at the house?’
‘Augh, foine, Misther Dick. The masther’s got the rheumatiz, poor man! but, God be praised, the spotted pig have the most beautiful litter yer ever clapped eyes on. Then the missus is in grate heart entoirely. Faix, phwat wid all the clutches doin’ noicely and that auld Roosian Count, she’s as lively as a coult. Augh, an’ I forgot Masther Ted an’ Miss Edith an’ the cockatoo — bad cess to him for a crass-timpered divil — is all in the best of health, the saints be praised!’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Dick when the old woman stopped. ‘And Miss Heather?’
‘Augh, now, Misther Dick,’ grinned Maggie, with a knowing wink, ‘faix, wouldn’t you like to ax her swate silf?’
‘So I will when I see her.’
‘Av coorse; but I mane by yerselves loike.’
‘What are you driving at?’
‘Divil doubt ye, how grane you are!’ exclaimed Maggie. ‘But plase yourself; I seed Miss Heather in the saplins beyant, and maybe she’s there yet. Bad scran to ’em, I musht take a wheel out of them contrairy hens.’
As the old woman toddled off, Dick passed through the gate and cantered towards the clump of trees to which Maggie had pointed.
On the further side of the timber belt he found Heather. The girl stood beside Io, one hand resting on her slender neck. Pricking her ears, the mare uttered a friendly whinny.
The graceful proportions of the thoroughbred and the woman’s faultless outlines, backed up by a clump of flame-clad coral trees, appealed at once to Dick’s artistic sense; but even as he looked, the cold glaciers of platonic friendship slipped headlong from about his heart, melted into the consistency of water by the warm realities of the picture.
Swinging out of his saddle, he clasped her outstretched hand, then, as he felt the contact of the soft, lithe fingers, a thrill went through him, magnetic, passion-compelling — supreme in power, and yet conceived in weakness. So for a little he stood still holding her hand, but saying never a word. Then, looking into his eyes, she said:
‘I’m so glad you have come back.’
But there was no tremor in her voice, only the mellow ring of a friendly greeting. What more could there be? he asked himself; and yet it all seemed such a mockery, for, despite his philosophy, he knew that Dead Sea fruit must be his portion, and now he further realized that platonic friendship was but a poor sauce for such a banquet.
Heather intuitively understood somewhat of the struggle that was in progress, and so, not because she was indifferent to his pain, but rather for the reason that she realized the cruelty of prolonging the situation, the girl began to tell him of her life since they had parted.
As he ran his hand fondly over Io’s mane, the mare rubbed her muzzle against his shirt.
‘You see, she’s true to her old love,’ said Heather; then, noticing the man’s cheek flush, she added: ‘I’ve been riding her every morning lately, and, see, there isn’t the sign of a sore on her back.’
As she spoke, Billy, bridle on arm, came towards them. Seeing Dick, he remarked:
‘Got back, I see, boss. Fine day, ain’t it?’
‘It’s been a hot one, at any rate, Billy. I’m glad the mare’s all right.’
‘Look here,’ said Billy in an awed tone; ‘it knocks me bandy. According to orders, Miss Heather’s been riding her reg’lar, and blow me if she’s got a scald the size of a pin’s ’ead on her back.’
‘Then I’ve surprised you, Billy!’ laughed the girl.
‘You’ve upset my calculations clean, miss,’ replied the trainer. ‘The motter o’ my life has been never to lend a woman or a sky-pilot a ’orse, unless you wants him skinned — prepared for a fastin’ contest, or ridden to death without interference from them cruelty-to-animals coves.’
‘Then you’d give me a mount, Billy?’
‘Blow me if I wouldn’t!’ said Billy earnestly. ‘Your hands is light, and you sit square — ’anged if I see what’s to stop you, barring the — beg pardon, I’ll look after the mokes, Mr. Dick,’ concluded Billy, slipping the bridle over Io’s head and jumping on her back.
Left to themselves, the two walked slowly towards the garden-gate. Dick had passed the time of life when it is considered excusable to allow one’s feelings to become a public nuisance, so he talked to the girl at his side on matters pertaining to all things save the one desire that lay nearest his heart. Zenski, he found, had been to Isis Downs with a cattle-buyer, who was securing large drafts to be delivered at the various railway-stations about the end of the present month. During his visit the Count had, it seemed, paid considerable attention to Mrs. Enson, and, as Heather remarked, visions of becoming a countess now began to take tangible form in the old lady’s mind.
‘By Jove, I wish he would marry her!’ laughed Dick. ‘For if things go as I fear they will, it might be convenient for you to be able to claim connection with the Count.’
‘Do you mean in the matter of free passes on his lines?’ laughed Heather.
‘No,’ replied Hatten quietly, ‘in the matter of saving your lives.’
As he spoke, the girl looked at him with some alarm, not certainly at his words, but because a certain suspicion of sunstroke flashed into her mind.
Guessing what her manner meant, Hatten said:
‘Don’t be alarmed; I’m not dangerous. I suppose what I said sounds mad enough, but I fear there is a lot of method in it.’
‘What do you mean? I detest mysteries.’
‘I suppose I shall only confirm your opinion of my insanity, but nevertheless I feel certain in my own mind that your friend the Count is well worth watching.’
‘Why?’ asked Heather coldly, for she liked Zenski, and rather resented Hatten’s imputation.
‘Because he is not what he professes to be,’ retorted Hatten stoutly.
‘Then what is he?’
‘If I am not vastly mistaken, a Russian spy.’
‘Don’t be absurd, Dick!’ laughed Heather. ‘Is it likely the Russian Government would choose a man they have practically outlawed for such a post?’
‘We have only his word as to the banishment both of himself and his friend Mr. Dromeroff,’ retorted Dick.
‘Since that day on the Barcoo, Ted looks with grave suspicion on poor Mr. Dromeroff. He seems to have made you a convert.’
‘Perhaps from his point of view Ted isn’t far out, either; but my suspicions date farther back.’
‘Surely this is petty, Dick,’ said Heather. ‘I thought you were above the old English prejudice against foreigners. I admit that it seems unfair to drive out all our white people for the sake of these wretched coolies, but Sir Peter McLoskie is to blame for that; and remember, both English and Australian firms, more shame to them, are employing cheap alien labour quite as readily as Count Zenski.’
‘I admit all you say, and, believe me, they will yet pay back in blood all they have won by this cursed system of slavery. Thanks to McLoskie, the North is an open door for the first invader who thinks fit to anchor in the Gulf.’
‘But what has this to do with the Count in particular?’
‘Everything. His railways are worked by men who have no interests here, and who, I believe, are merely tools in his hands. He is hand-in-glove, despite all he may say to the contrary, with the infernal half-breeds who have just sold me up, and who are absorbing fresh stations every day.’
‘I know it is all wrong,’ said Heather, indignant for her friend’s sake. ‘But isn’t Mr. Thompson an Englishman, Dick? Not that that makes it any better for you, poor old fellow!’
‘He’s no more English than Zenski. I bowled him out at that dinner Spero gave Dromeroff. In point of fact, I fancy it was for that very reason they took over my mortgage and hunted me.’
‘Then what do you think it all means?’ asked the girl in puzzled tones.
‘I don’t quite know,’ admitted Dick; ‘but this is what I fear. War with Russia seems inevitable; the massing of English troops on the Afghan frontier, and the request for our help to do garrison duty and act as a check on the natives, all point to a grave crisis. Now that five thousand of our best men have gone, what is to prevent Russia making a dash on us?’
‘But you forget the English fleet, Dick,’ said the girl in some alarm.
‘They, I fear, will have more than they can well manage elsewhere. Remember, Russia has France at her back, and both their fleets are now formidable in these seas.’
‘But even so, don’t you think they would confine their attack to our capitals?’
‘Undoubtedly they would make a demonstration both at Brisbane and Sydney; but my idea is this: that once past the China squadron, they would throw their main force on Point Parker, be received with open arms by Spero, Aloysius and Co., and find a swift and easy roadway on Zenski’s lines clean into the heart of Queensland.’
‘Oh, Dick!’ exclaimed the girl, convinced in spite of herself by Dick’s earnestness; ‘and what then?’
‘A fight against terrible odds, with a horde of blood-thirsty savages,’ muttered Dick grimly.
‘Surely you have told the authorities what you think?’ exclaimed Heather, now as full of certainty as before of doubt.
‘The authorities,’ laughed Dick bitterly, ‘are too much in love with the whole beautiful scheme that has made all this possible to listen to me. I should be treated as a madman or a fool, who wanted to have revenge for the loss of my station.’
‘Mr. Musgrave must have some such idea in his head,’ said Heather; ‘for weeks past they have been putting Fort Mallarraway in a state of defence; everyone thinks they are mad, but now I can see what it all means.’
‘Musgrave is no fool,’ said Dick in a tone of relief, ‘as we may all find soon enough; but God help us if he alone is wise.’
‘That reminds me, the Government have let Count Zenski a contract to fortify Point Parker, so they must have their suspicions.’
‘Yes, I know they have,’ retorted Hatten contemptuously; ‘ they are paying him to build batteries that will never be completed to defy the Russian advance, but which may later defend a hostile base.’
As he spoke they passed from under the trellises, and moved up the steps on to the veranda.
‘Welcome back to Isis Downs, Dick!’ cried Cameron heartily. ‘Thank God, the infernal banks and finance companies haven’t put it out of my power to give shelter to a friend yet!’
‘Perhaps they’re preserving you as a specimen of an extinct race, sir,’ laughed Dick, as he shook hands with Mrs. Enson and Edith.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 144-155